When I was a child the Good News of the Gospel was usually couched in fear that if you did not “get right with God” you would go to hell; basically, cosmic fire insurance. We were told in no uncertain terms that we must repent of our sin, which seemed to mean to confess it to God (fortunately not to anyone else!) and He would forgive the bad stuff we had done. Not very good for Good News.
These days the word “repentance” is hardly ever uttered from pulpits in America, so much so that I do not recall the last time I heard it in a meeting of the church. (This does not mean it was not discussed; I may have missed it or be forgetting a sermon or two.) The focus appears to be on the wonderful plan God has for your life and surrendering your will to His. Just figure out what God wants you to do and allow Him to work it out through you. Mostly this seems to come from one Dr. Z. Hodges of Dallas Theological Seminary who wrote in the 1970s:
“One of the most striking facts about the doctrine of repentance in the Bible is that this doctrine is totally absent from John’s gospel. There is not even so much as one reference to it in John’s twenty-one chapters… Since John’s Gospel omits the message of repentance, are we to conclude that its gospel is not the biblical gospel after all? The very idea carries its own refutation. The fourth evangelist explicitly claims to be doing evangelism (John 20:30-31). It is not the theology of the gospel of John that is deficient; it is the theology found in lordship salvation.”
This sounds all well and good, but the fact that John’s gospel does not mention “repentance” is hardly justification for eliminating this doctrine of historic Christianity. In fact several points of reasoning show this “theology in lordship salvation” is erroneous and at times downright dangerous. The result is people who attend church, sing the worship songs and lead in prayer, and then promptly go out and live as though God was not aware of them; at least, they certainly seem unaware of Him!
Repentance means “turning away.” Plain and simple, it means stop doing what you are doing that is displeasing to God. It is more than just accepting another plan; it is more than just remorse (Hebrews 12:15-17); it is more than just regret (Matthew 27:3-5). This is not an attempt to bring back “fire insurance” salvation, but to balance the idea of Jesus’ lordship with the fact that we cannot honor Him as Lord and behave the way we did before. We must be willing as C.S. Lewis says to go back to where we first left the path. “Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.”
First, the Gospel of John is not the only book the apostle wrote. Repentance is featured heavily in the Revelation where five of the seven churches of Asia are told to repent. Ephesus (2:5), Pergamum (2:16), Thyatira (2:22), Sardis (3:3) and Laodicea (3:19) are each issued dire warnings if they refuse to repent. Refusal to repent is justification for severe judgment in Revelation 9:20-21 and 16:9-11 for those outside the Church.
Further, in John’s letters, although the word “repentance” is again missing, its concept is not. He goes so far as to say, “the one who makes a practice of sinning is of the devil,” and that one who is born of God “cannot keep on sinning.” (1 John 3:4-10) Not abiding in the teaching of Christ is paramount to not having God at all! (2 John 9; 3 John 11) The same can be said of John’s Gospel. Just read John 3 and try to understand being born again without the repentance clearly called for in 3:16-21!
Furthermore, the argument from absence of “repentance” in John’s gospel is a logical fallacy based on an argument from ignorance, similar in informal logic to the argument from silence. The Apostle John also never mentions God’s grace in the gospel. Are we to conclude that we should avoid teaching about grace because of its absence from one book? One could just as easily contend that because the word “love” does not appear in the Acts of the Apostles, it must not matter to fulfilling the Great Commission.
Lastly, the Gospel of John is one of 66 books in the mini-library that is the Bible (see January 25, 2015). It is not difficult to do a word search for various words of significance to our relationship with God and find several books that do not mention any of them: justification, sanctification, love, grace, peace, joy, etc. Our understanding of these themes must be developed based on the “whole counsel” (1 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:19-21) of the Scriptures.
The Old Testament prophets, John the Baptist, Peter, Paul, and yes, even Jesus all began their service to the Kingdom with calls to repentance (Matthew 4:17). Jesus said, “there will be more joy in Heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine who do not need repentance.” (Luke 15:7)
Biblically, “repentance” that does not result in a change of direction is clearly not repentance. John the Baptist commanded his listeners to behave in a way that showed they had repented (Luke 3:10-14) It is not just a change of mind, but a change of mind that results in a change of action. We will behave according to what we really believe. (See April 19, 2015, Do You Agree or Do You Believe?)
This is not written smugly as though I have found an answer to sin and if you do not, you can go to . . .; God help me if I ever forget the pit from which he brought me. My heart is for you, dear reader, that you will find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:16), strength from Outside yourself to be transformed by the renewal of your mind (Romans 12:2) that will result in a change of heart so that you will be able to worship Jesus as Lord without faking it (Acts 8:20-23).
Nearly they stood who fall;
Themselves as they look back
See always in the track
The one false step, where all
Even yet, by lightest swerve
Of foot not yet enslaved,
By smallest tremor of the smallest nerve
Might have been saved.
Nearly they fell who stand,
And with cold after fear
Look back to see how near
They grazed the sirens’ land.
Wondering what subtle fate,
By threads so spidery fine,
The choice of ways so small, the event so great
Should thus entwine.
Therefore oh, man, have fear
Lest oldest fears be true,
Lest thou too far pursue
The road that seems so clear,
And step, secure, a hair’s
Breadth past the hair-breadth border
Which, being once crossed forever unawares,
the Guide in Pilgrim’s Regress by C.S.Lewis